When you want a break from ordinary summertime color, give tropical plants a chance. The list is extensive, and while some of the best types are also some of the most difficult to find, the hunt is half the fun. Here are a few fairly uncommon options you might want to consider.
Bloodleaf (Iresine herbstii)
Think of a plant the size of a basketball, with brilliantly red foliage from spring until fall. If you can picture all of that, you'll have a reasonable understanding of how rich the shades of this great tender tropical are. In real life, it gets even better.
Grow bloodleaf in early morning sun (until 8 or 9 a.m.), then bright shade the balance of the day. Bloodleaf needs highly organic soil. In fact, this plant does terrifically in a simple patio pot. Keep it growing actively by keeping it moist and by feeding it with a high-nitrogen, water-soluble food each time you water it.
You may have to hunt for bloodleaf. It's certainly not mainstream. But if you can find it at a nursery somewhere, be prepared to be dazzled. It shows up from time to time in the national home centers, and a few astute retail nurserymen may offer it, too.
For the record, there's another plant in this group. With yellow and red variegation, it also has a rather unusual name: chicken gizzard plant. And, apparently recognizing the potential of these plants in our gardens, breeders are working on new and improved types.
Tropical plumbago (Plumbago capensis)
Every landscape needs something blue in the summer, and plumbago is one of the best sources for Texas. It tolerates sun, but it also does well with a few hours of shade each afternoon. It grows to 18 to 24 inches tall, and it blooms continuously from now until frost.
If you travel toward the Gulf Coast, you'll see plumbago growing as a 2- to 3-foot perennial subshrub. Here, though, it's going to be annual. Not to worry, however. Nurseries restock it each spring.
Lemon lollipop (Pachystachys lutea)
Some might refer to this as "yellow shrimp plant," and the similarities are obvious. Lemon lollipop grows to 18 to 24 inches tall, and it tops all of its stems with colorful stacks of yellow flowers all summer and up until frost.
As with our other tropical-color plants, lemon lollipop can be grown either in pots or in the ground. If you overwinter it in a sunroom or greenhouse, you'll probably want to cut it back drastically at the end of winter. The plants can get rather leggy, and you'll enjoy the regrowth and fresh look a lot more.
Croton 'Petra' (Codiaeum sp.)
You'll actually find many varieties of crotons in the Texas nursery industry today. That's a great thing, because these plants are some of the showiest of all tropical color. We grow them for foliage, and the colors get more brilliant with exposure to sunlight. Having grown them in my own yard for almost 30 summers -- the photo is from our landscape -- I've found the perfect blend of lighting to be sunlight until noon, then shade during the hottest part of the afternoon in the summer.
You can plant crotons into beds, but they'll break your heart when winter arrives. I leave mine potted, then bring them into the greenhouse over the winter. You could safely bring them through the cold months if you had a bright south-facing window. Rotate the plants every few days for more uniform lighting.
Pink polka-dot (Hypoestes sanguinolenta)
As with bloodleaf, you have to find just the right nursery to get your trowels on this little annual. It grows to 12 inches tall and wide, and breeders have brought us a wonderful assortment of pink, red and white variegation. Kids love it, and you will, too.
Peace lily 'Domino' (Spathiphyllum sp.)
Actually, you could make a case for planting any of the peace lilies into patio pots and growing them in a shaded spot outdoors this summer. You'll be rewarded with their showy Jack-in-the-pulpit blooms a couple times each season (ours are blooming now), and their foliage is beautiful. The variegated selection called Domino gives showy green leaves with white flecks speckled generously across the foliage.
Best of all, peace lilies are among the easiest of our interior houseplants. They seldom complain, and insects and diseases never bother them. They're also best adapted to lower lighting intensities indoors. I have several that have spent 25 or more summers in our landscape, always heading toward the greenhouse when the first frost is imminent.
Neil Sperry publishes Gardens magazine and hosts Texas Gardening noon-1 p.m. Saturdays and 9 a.m.-noon Sundays on WBAP AM/FM. Reach him during those hours at 800-288-9227 or 214-787-1820.